Eben Moglen Illuminates Freedom of Thought in Keynote at re:publica 2019

May 7, 2019

On Tuesday, May 7th, 2019, SFLC President and Columbia Professor of Law Eben Moglen delivered a keynote address titled Why Freedom of Thought Requires Attention at the re:publica 2019 conference in Berlin, Germany. Professor Moglen’s keynote directly engages with the consequences of humanity’s technological prowess on the abilities to self-govern, communicate, and even think.

His thesis relates digital technology to freedom and self-government:

“We are building the new neuro-anatomy of the human race. In the process we are destroying the human attention system, changing our idea of what it means to be human. The effect on our capacity for freedom and self-government is devastating, but not so bad for those who want to govern us. People are increasingly aware of the problem, but don’t know what to do. In this talk, I explain how and why.” 1

Professor Moglen’s speech begins with an illustration of our problem and touches on three sources of solutions: politics, technology, and law.

Video: Tentatively, you can watch a recording of the livestream here. The re:publica team will share a high quality recording soon.

Selected Quotes

We have curated some brief quotes from the speech for readers who cannot view the video. These quotes are presented chronologically:

Eben Moglen on smart phones:

“Gram for gram, that smart phone is denser with sensing than the spy satellite in orbit, and it’s all aimed at you…We don’t need a thing in orbit to take a picture of a golf ball on the ground. Everybody has a little camera, and they take a picture…”

Eben Moglen on free services:

“The neuron [i.e. the smart phone] creates a network whose purpose now is to acquire your behavior…and to offer you services…What is really amazing is the price at which they are delivered to you, which isn’t zero. It’s the price of who you are…”

Eben Moglen on the push model in the modern web:

“The computers that we use now push us very hard. Tens of thousands of times a day, they show an advertisement and measure a response.”

Eben Moglen on persuasive design:

“It’s very important to recognize that once behavior collection is what the network really does, then what it attempts to maximize is behavior. This lies beneath the increasingly important intellectual discipline known as persuasive design…”

Eben Moglen on news feeds and constant notifications:

“The stream of what comes to you [on the net] drowns the inner dialogue, removes interiority, changes your understanding of time. ‘Too long didn’t read.’ How long is too long?”

Eben Moglen on the decay of the ability to read:

“We couldn’t have foreseen that the people who came after us would be crippled in acquiring that ability [to read] by that incessant disturbance by the machine seeking attention.”

Eben Moglen on his unique way of ad-free computing:

“I started using computers when I was 12 in 1971. And the gravitational consequence of having grown up computing without disturbance leaves me hyper-sensitive to efforts to control my thinking from yet another message…”

Eben Moglen on a new cultural innovation:

“…people carrying an infant in a front carrier. The adult is looking here [phone], and the infant is looking at the adult looking at the phone. That’s the birth of a new cultural system in the human race, spreading faster than Christianity or Islam or any other fast-moving cultural innovation in the history of human kind…”

Eben Moglen on consequences for politics:

“…you may notice there are also some consequences for politics. That is to say we are experiencing a decline public rationality…We are experiencing an attack upon our own ability to deliberate.”

Eben Moglen on what is missing from modern technology:

“What is decaying is that private, internal space in which truth is sorted out, and the human being decides for herself what is the purpose of the world, what is the meaning of my existent here, how should I live. Not surprisingly, the machine is not interested in how you should live. It’s interested only in how much you should behave.”

Eben Moglen on political dialogue:

“Political dialogue became about striking poses, acting, much less about considering, let alone re-considering. Taking something into an internal place of your own and thinking about it over time…You still achieve that against the enormous pressure of the devices you keep around you. But you cannot keep it up forever.”

Eben Moglen on the problem:

“Here is our problem: the attention span of the human race collectively is shortening. The previous autonomy of internal mind that we gained barely half a thousand years ago, and which we used to make democracy and the right of the individual and the sense of self-development [that] we call freedom is threatened by our own habits as they take hold in this net we do not want with these media that consume us as we consume them.”

Eben Moglen on the future:

“We built this [the web] to liberate human kind. We can’t just take it part and destroy it because we have allowed it to twist in our hands and bite us back. We have to fix it. We have a fairly short period of time.”

Eben Moglen on the urgency of solving this problem:

“The clock now runs against us as it runs against us on the planet. Two great environmental disasters, each requiring our fullest concentration and our broadest social mobilization…”

Eben Moglen on the technological solution:

“We need to change the political economy of services…We need to make it possible to federate all services in the net…When services are federated, they are no longer paid for by exclusive access to the internal lives of human beings, and they are no longer justified by the profitability of advertising sales.”

Eben Moglen on the federated net:

“When we are delivering [services] to one another cooperatively, we are turning the net back in the direction that we originally wanted, the one in which it acts to liberate us through individual effort to teach and learn.”

Eben Moglen on federating the net:

“The federation of all services is not an inconceivable idea. Most of the services we have are meant to be federated. The net was designed for it. We are undoing problems rather than making terribly complicated inventions. This is the intended goal of the little gesture I call FreedomBox: the manufacture of simple, inexpensive, self-administrating servers that we can hold in the palm of our hands and distribute throughout the world like apple seeds.”

Eben Moglen on the political solution:

“We need to understand the businesses we have called telecoms and social media are behavior collection businesses. We need to regulate them not as telecoms or as platforms but as behavior collectors…subject to regulation in the public interest on the basis of what it is, not what it claims to be.”

Eben Moglen on push and pull in the web:

“We need to appreciate that the goal of the network is not the constant subsidiary mental activity of human beings. The goal of the network is not push, it’s pull…What we really wanted was for human beings to initiate requests for what they want.”

Eben Moglen on the goal of regulation of technology:

“It is not clear what the objective of social regulation of the net ought to be unless it is the improvement of human intellectual life–the broadening to be sure, the maximizing of access. But quality is important too.”

Eben Moglen on the goal of social policies for the net:

“It should be the clear goal of social policy is to help us make the net quieter. Our politics depends upon it…The health of our democracies depends upon it.”

Eben Moglen concludes at re:publica 2019:

“‘tl;dr’ is the crisis of the human mind in five characters.”

Eben Moglen answers a question about solutions to the problems he described:

“We need as always three things: politics, technology, and law…In technology, we need to re-architect for federation. In politics, we need to understand both the objective of government, that is the restoration of the quality of thought and the nature of past human relations, and we need to understand the subject of regulation, which is the behavior-collection business. What do we need in law? We need regulation of the behavior collection business. And we need to remove the legal immunity of the intermediaries. We need to restore the principles of responsibility for what they do to the people it injures. We lifted the liability of the intermediaries in the 1990s to protect an infant industry against being collapsed by liability. That was successful. But temporary immunity is becoming permanent above-the-lawness…We need to restore ordinary principles of liability and responsibility to one another. And we need to use the legal system to help us therefore reduce this wart that we have developed…”

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